“There Is a Hunger Out There for More Complicated Discussions”

A conversation with Meghan Daum about her journey into the intellectual dark web.

A laptop glowing in a dark room.

In her new essay, “Nuance: A Love Story,” Meghan Daum charts what she calls her “affair with the intellectual dark web.” This is a group of writers, commentators and podcasters who, despite their political differences, have come together under the IDW banner due to their mutual distaste for “identity politics,” their critiques of campus culture, and their willingness to push back against what they see as the doctrinaire progressivism that reigns supreme on social media and in elite discourse.

Daum herself became attracted to the group, which includes Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Christina Hoff Sommers, because “Questions that had once been treated as complicated inquiries requiring scrutiny and nuance were increasingly being reduced to moral absolutes, especially as far as liberal types were concerned.” Describing “a maddening toggle between what I felt versus what I thought I was supposed to feel,” Daum, who had always identified as a liberal, began listening to podcasts hosted by members of the IDW, and watching their videos on YouTube. Although she remains torn about some aspects of what it would mean to fully embrace their ideas—”Just as you can’t fight Trumpism with tribalism, you can’t fight tribalism with a tribe”— her piece is about her engagement with a number of ideas many progressives find distasteful.

I recently spoke by phone with Daum, whose latest book is The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what should really count as “identity politics,” whether the IDW is a political movement, and how the “resistance” turned her off.

Isaac Chotiner: What is your current relationship, ideologically, to the intellectual dark web?

Meghan Daum: There’s a part of me that could easily be seduced in some ways by that world and the notion of sort of joining them. But I also think that would be an intellectually dishonest position. I know that wouldn’t really sit well with me. So, I thought the only way to conclude the piece was to really kind of just sit in that ambivalent place.

The word “seduced” has kind of a negative connotation. What does that imply?

I don’t know. I mean, look I’m a freelance writer. I work from home. I live by myself. I have never been employed by any particular publication. I was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times for many, many years, but I was always a freelancer. So I think that for somebody in my position … there is something very appealing about affiliation, or alignment with some kind of group or a club. Or a “tribe” is the word that keeps being used. So, in a way I could have seen myself kind of going in that direction. But I also think that … I actually think that if you’re really faithful to a lot of the ideas that are being discussed in that realm, you have to, like I said, really own your conflicted-ness about it. And kind of sit in that ambivalence. And it doesn’t make for hot takes, it doesn’t make for very hashtaggable ideas. But I really think that’s the only kind of honest place to land.

One of the themes that runs through your piece was the ups and downs of your marriage. And one of the things you highlight is that the engagement with this tribe’s ideas offered you a certain kind of self-help. Do you think that’s true of all political movements, or do you think there’s something specific about this one?

I wouldn’t call it a movement. And I certainly wouldn’t call it political. It’s more like …
see, again, I’m really trying to work through this. It’s a good question. It’s really more like an expanding conversation. If it allows people to explore their ambivalence and their cognitive dissonance around a lot of the issues that are in play and being discussed in this particular cultural and political moment, I think that that’s important.

I think, if anything, this movement, conversation, whatever, has arisen in reaction to social media, and the sort of intersection of Twitter culture and Trumpism, and everything that led up to it. And it really made for very polarized modes of discourse. And that statement is nothing original. But I do think that there is a hunger out there for more complicated discussions, and the ability to float ideas and entertain lines of inquiry in other settings, [which] get completely smacked down before you can even finish your sentence.

There are several people in the IDW who have a self-help flavor to them, specifically Jordan Peterson.

Oh, for sure.

His book is called 12 Rules for Life. Is the self-help one of the things about him that appeals to you?

No, not at all. So, Jordan Peterson: It’s tricky because he’s really the most visible figure in this movement. But he’s also kind of the least representative of them, in a way. I actually wrote a column in the L.A. Times back in March talking about how potentially dangerous he was for this movement, this web. I was talking about how the intellectual dark web was sort of this rising movement, and it had some really interesting qualities. But the prominence of Peterson kind of jeopardized that, because he was being talked about too much, but also in a lot of the wrong ways.

So, Peterson contains multitudes. And the elements of him that are self-help don’t personally appeal to me. I think they’re fine, I don’t have any problem with them. And I think that he’s doing a lot of good for a lot of people. But just to answer your question, no. He’s not what drew me in at all. I mean, as I talk about in the piece, my gateway were those conversations between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury. They are not the selling Jordan Peterson–size concert halls.

I don’t know if you ever saw his thing about why, if he were American instead of Canadian, he would vote for Trump, but it was like—

Yeah, but he really … I don’t know, see if you actually watch that entire clip he was … I believe he was speaking sort of hypothetically if he were an American in a certain kind of circumstance, and of a certain kind of mindset, then he would vote for Trump, etc., etc., etc.

Right. He said that he would’ve gone into the voting booth with the intention of voting for Hillary in this hypothetical. But because her identity politics had become so loud, essentially, he would’ve had to vote for Trump. Which gets to my concerns about the movement, namely the idea that Hillary Clinton was practicing more identity politics than Donald Trump, which it does feel like something that some people in the intellectual dark web believe. It seems like that is where things start to go off the rails.

Yes, because the term identity politics gets thrown around, I think, recklessly. I mean, Peterson … and again, like I said in the piece, it’s easy to end up defending him. And I really don’t even care about him very much, but he has a long history of criticizing the identity politics of the right, as well as the left. He’s kind of allergic to dogmatism, no matter how you slice it. And I don’t think he does himself any favors in terms of refining his message.

But, yes. There is a strain of this intellectual dark web that talks about identity politics and political correctness and tribalism, and throws around the terms in a very simplistic way. And like I said in the piece, it would frustrate me when I would see people doing that. But then on the other hand, I think there are other people who are digging much deeper, and really having those nuanced conversations.

In the piece, you say that those fighting Trump’s bigotry “too often instituted their own kind of tyranny. Almost immediately, the resistance became not just a front line against Trumpism but its own scorching battleground. To be frothing with rage over one thing meant being insufficiently aggrieved over something else. If you were worried about women, you weren’t worried enough about blacks. If you marched for immigrants, why didn’t you show up for the scientists? For many, there was no amount of outrage that couldn’t be outdone, no wokeness woke enough.” Where do you feel like this was going on: people who march for immigrants were criticized for not showing up for scientists? The idea that this became a kind of tyranny. I’m just wondering where you felt that manifested itself.

No, that’s a very fair question. I mean, for one thing you’ve expertly managed to single out probably the most deliberately hyperbolic moment in the piece, but that’s fine. I just felt that that was kind of the mood and the palette on social media. I was just seeing a lot of people on Twitter trying to out-outrage one another. And I just think there was a sort of overriding sense of misery and frustration, and resentment, that’s causing people to kind of … there was a sort of grievance Olympics.

And so, that moment in the piece I guess I was talking about a kind of mood that—well, I was talking about a sort of mood that you saw on social media.

You add, “From NPR to CNN to dinner parties in gentrified Brooklyn, you’d think the only allowable conversations were the ones in which facts were massaged to accommodate visceral feelings of leftist outrage.” If this is really going on at CNN, that’s sort of beyond Twitter. That’s not how I would view CNN over the past couple years.

Well. I mean, I think that the piece is really trying to look at … examine an overriding sort of feeling of cognitive dissonance, and frustration, that I certainly had. And that I think a lot of people have had. And certainly the responses that I’ve gotten to the piece would suggest that I’m not the only one feeling this way. So I guess what I wanted to talk about was the reason that people get wrung into these conversations on the IDW, is that there is a sense of not having the time or the space to really work out their ideas and their opinions of things without getting immediately pigeonholed into … well, you’re saying you don’t support immigrants. Or you’re saying that the gender wage gap is a myth. That sort of thing.

I’m trying to wrestle with what constitutes throwing out an opinion, and what constitutes trying to silence someone. As an example, someone saying “David Brooks should fucking retire already!” is something you offer as an example of this sort of leftist outrage. Which we can agree is kind of crudely stated, but it’s an opinion that anyone could have without wanting to silence anyone. They just think David Brooks isn’t a good columnist.

Right. I mean, obviously, people can say anything they want. And frankly, the reason that I framed the piece around the demise of my marriage was because I think these very questions that you’re asking, I think they’re sort of unanswerable. I can say whatever I want. But I wanted to get at just a really sort of abstract ephemeral feeling that was going on. I want to get at these kind of more fleeting, difficult to articulate, kind of ambient … a sort of feeling about the culture. Again, you can tell how … this is the first interview I’ve done about this.

No, obviously, I’m not going to sit here and say that people are being silenced. Clearly, they’re not. But I do think that there is a feeling among a lot of liberals that there’s a distancing from their friends and their peers. And there are some people who they can talk to candidly, and others that they can’t. I mean, I cannot tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from people, and I’m sure you’ve found this yourself, where they’re like, “Oh my gosh. I feel like if I ask certain questions even, my friends are just going to write me off.”

You mention in the piece, “By then, Hillary Clinton … was talking about white Americans needing to recognize their privilege.” You were saying that as like, “OK, here are the liberals playing identity politics.” Is there a tension between the dark web claiming to really prioritize strong opinions and free speech, and the toxic reaction they seem to often have to people saying things like this?  

Hilary Clinton was definitely using identity politics but in certainly a more palatable way than Donald Trump uses identity politics. I think I say right there in the piece that for a long time the right had absolutely cornered the market on identity politics. And no one does it better than Trump. I guess, this is the thing. I could have wrapped up the piece by saying, “Hey, the intellectual dark web isn’t perfect. But it’s our best hope,” or, “This is a really important movement for our times. This is the only way forward.” There’s a little bit of me that thinks that. I have moments where I would love for it to be that simple. Honestly, I just don’t know. And the answer to the question is I just don’t know.

I was looking up the Hilary Clinton quote. So this is the whole quote: “We white Americans need to do a better job of listening when African Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers you face every day. We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility rather than assume that our experiences are everyone’s experiences. We all need to try as best we can to walk in one another’s shoes.” It feels unhealthy that we’ve gotten to a place where something like that is considered identity politics.

Well, we’re in a very unhealthy place as a culture. I don’t disagree with you a bit. But I think there are people who hear a quote like that and unfortunately their first thought is, “Oh, I wonder who wrote that for her. I wonder what advisor told her to say that. I wonder what kind of polling data gave them the idea that this would be a good thing to say to this particular audience in this particular venue.” I mean, I think that is the kind of visceral reaction that too many people have. And that then leads them to a discussion basically laying out what I just said.

Is the proper response to that, though, to do what it seems like a lot intellectual dark web people do? To get really upset about Hillary Clinton’s identity politics? Or is the proper response to explain to people why what she said is not a threat to white Americans?

Well, I think … look, the corner of the intellectual dark web that I’m interested in I think is intelligent and nuanced enough that the people that follow it are intelligent enough to not need an explanation to why Hilary Clinton’s statement is fairly anodyne. I really cannot speak for the Jordan Peterson acolytes, the Ben Shapiro acolytes. A lot of the stuff in the intellectual dark web is very cartoonish and boring to me, as I said in the piece.

The question that you asked is a very valid one. It’s not one that I need to be asked. So really, again, the piece was a process of sort of wading through all of this stuff. And trying to figure out what parts of this attracted me, and what parts didn’t. And really what was going on. What’s going on in this particular moment. And it’s really a mine field and a moving target. I don’t know any other way to say it. And this very conversation I think is completely emblematic of that. It’s very hard to kind of narrow this stuff down. But that’s also what makes it interesting.